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Religious Intolerance

guest post by Brian Schmied

Nobody is quite as good at intolerance toward religions as other religions. It makes sense when you think about it. Secular people aren’t worried about becoming the collateral damage in a violent fit of divine jealousy, and they don’t worry about their children turning away from the light and burning in eternal hellfire.

Religions don’t like to mix, and they do a great job of worming their way into public policy to either violently suppress diversity or keep it out entirely. The obvious modern day examples are traditionally Muslim nations, which either punish formerly Islamic apostates with the death penalty, or do a terrible job of preventing vigilantes from carrying it out, depending on how progressive their legal system is.

It’s deeply unfair to limit this discussion to Islam, however. If you’re looking to be persecuted for your religious convictions, you don’t need to board an airplane. Radical and genocidal American strains of Christianity are surprisingly comparable.

Imagine you are a Muslim American officer attending a military school and ending up in this class. American military officers have been taught to believe that nuclear genocide of Muslims is not only an option, but necessary for American security. That is not an exaggeration.

The U.S military headquarters, the Pentagon, hosts a Christian Embassy, to better help America’s top military personnel defer their decisions to deeply unqualified, glorified shamans. Given such evidence, Mickey Weinstein’s assertion, “…that a Christian Taliban is running the military.” doesn’t seem so absurd anymore.

As much as these big religions hate each other, nothing gives them the heebie-jeebies quite so much as new religions. Small and strange religions evoke an interesting reaction among the adherents to culturally mainstream superstitions.

In our Christian society, it is very interesting how black and white some things are to the culture. To them, David Miscavige could just as easily be a Wiccan or a Satanist. It’s all boils down to the same Satan worship to them. Never mind that the official Church of Satan is atheistic and doesn’t believe in the existence of Satan, or a god, or any other supernatural things, and certainly doesn’t worship anything.

It’s a very strong Sith versus Jedi mentality that completely shuts down thought and examination. Earlier this year, conservative writer gave voice to the general bafflement among Christians. Raymond Ibrahim wondered aloud about the world’s complete lack of reaction to some anti-Christian mobs in Egypt, which he interprets as an official declaration of war by 1.4 billion Muslims against all of Christendom.

Never mind the 120,000 corpses in Iraq. Never mind that Afghani death tolls are not reported. Of course the U.S military, which has long struggled with the inordinate influence of fundamentalist Christians, couldn’t possibly be motivated to commit war crimes by Christian anti-Islamic sentiment.

On the one hand we have an angry religious mob attacking “non-believers” in their community, and on the other we have a global military network full of religious zealots with a budget nearly the size of Russia’s GDP conquering and occupying entire nations with blatantly made up excuses about WMD’s.

It’s hard to tell if the religious people are using the government to kill their enemies or if the politicians are wielding religion to motivate people to kill in their political interest.

 

Brian Schmied studied political science. He enjoys learning and writing about religions, politics, and the mayhem that ensues wherever they intersect.

Opinion

‘The Faith Fallacy,’ and other fallacies

A few days ago one of my friends notified me of an op-ed publication in her university’s (Grand Valley State University’s) paper Lanthorn titled “The Faith Fallacy: Why belittling believers makes no sense.”  The piece of course attempts to defend faith, particularly religious faith, particularly by showing how everyone else has ‘faith’ in something else.  If everyone else has ‘faith,’ then religious people are at least safe in, maybe justified in, their faith.

Gee, haven’t heard the old “you do it too!” one before.  It’s a very difficult argument to construct well, and has to be premised on actions from non-believers that really do mirror religious faith in one critical aspect: lack of evidence for these beliefs.  In accordance with this argument’s tradition of throwing things at the wall until they stick, the action-flavor of the month is getting a college education:

“College, like religion, is an institution. […] In both cases believers in these institutions take a gamble, hoping their investment makes a return: most students believe they will leave college with a degree/career potential and most religious people believe when they leave this earth they will be rewarded for their faith.”

Before addressing this basic premise though, I would be amiss to not mention a following line that struck me as out of place (my emphasis):

“Believing in something, so long as it is not blind faith, should be commended– not chastised.”

That’s basically the whole point, the crux of one of the most important reasons why non-believers don’t believe in a god or in religion.  Right there is a written rejection of the ‘critical aspect’ of religious faith I mentioned earlier.  I would ask why this statement was put into an article that is trying to refute non-believer arguments against religious faith; it’s not clear from the rest of her article, however, that Christine Colleran has an understanding of what non-believers even mean by ‘blind faith.’  I think that a useful illustrative tool here would be contrast to something else we might believe in: college.

“Despite evidence proving that great success is attainable without college, we continue to have faith in the power of a degree.”

Christine’s cited evidence is a handful of (admittedly extremely) successful people: Mark Zuckerberg (who actually did attend college – Harvard no less! – but dropped out because he developed Facebook while in school), Richard Branson of Virginia Atlantic, and computer entrepreneurs Michael Dell and Steve Jobs.

oscar_reutersvard_impossible_13

I suppose that this technically is proof that success is possibly attainable without a college education.  I’m not really sure whoever said that you’re guaranteed to fail; I would bet money that Christine was told at one point that you’d be more likely to succeed with a college education.  Is there evidence that around 90% of Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs have college degrees?  Is there evidence that unemployment rates for college graduates is lower than people without college education; that Master’s degree holders have lower unemployment still; that PhD graduates have even lower unemployment?  Why, yes there is.  It’s not proof that you’ll get a job – these rates are progressively lower, but none of them zero.  It’s a belief without total certainty, but a very justified belief to hold.

Since we’re contrasting, we might ask the same questions of religious claims: is there evidence that being religious gets you into heaven?  Is there evidence that a particular religion is correct?  Is there evidence that there’s even a deity to worship in the first place?  Why, no there is not.

Encompassed in the questions for religion is also a distinction that warrants its own mention: you can make judgments throughout your college career about whether or not it will actually be beneficial to you in the long run.  If you notice that your major’s unemployment rate is almost up to 20%, you can factor that into your decision to pursue your education.  Demand for jobs in particular industries is reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and there is research you can do in general to find if jobs are available.

The potential outcomes for religious beliefs, however, are only realized after death.  There is no indication while you are living of whether you’ll be successful, whether there’s something you should perhaps do differently that will cost you in the end.  Adherence to a belief system that has no evidence and no means of validating itself along the way is definitionally blind faith.

If a belief makes you a better person, then more power to you.  Worthwhile to consider, however, is if you even have reasons for believing in what you do.  It’s a good way to get people off your back who think that uncritical belief was, is, and/or will be a detriment to society; think of all of the help it would be in writing op-eds too!

 

Guest post by Alexander Coulter from the University of Michigan. Cross-posted with permission from U of M SSA’s blog: http://michiganssa.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-faith-fallacy-and-other-fallacies.html

General Opinion

The 6 Paths to Atheism: by Chad Becker

Three months in to the job I currently hold, my fairly religious bossman finally asked me a direct question regarding religion. With a bit more internal anguish than I expected, I answered honestly like I decided I always would a number of years ago. After telling him I was an atheist, and establishing that I did go to a Methodist Church growing up, his first and almost only question was, “What happened to you at the church that turned you away?” I couldn’t handle that question ‘in the moment.’ It speaks volumes about how he interprets my being an atheist.  He doesn’t see it as my stance on the validity of religion. He see’s it as my bias due to someone else’s failing or my own lack of “faith.”

Or not.

But that’s certainly how it seems considering he never really changed his question after my first response of, “It’s not a matter of what happened, it’s just what I decided after I was old enough to really look at the validity of Christianity.” However, I know I didn’t say it so eloquently since, like I said, I was feeling quite a bit more uncomfortable than I ever expected I would.

To attempt to answer his basically repeated question I went on a tiny, yet calm, rant, flailing in all sorts of different directions that probably made me seem like a bit of a loon and/or lost on the subject. But really it was quite the opposite. I so earnestly and honestly stared at the question of “God” for so many years that I just wanted to get all of it out and since I was in the rare position of a religious person actually asking me directly how I got to such a conclusion, I may have gone a little overboard and everywhere. Because… the nerves I guess… the work environment… alright I’ll stop making excuses now. It just wasn’t pretty.

Here’s the actual thoughts I was trying to convey while in my panic rant.

The 6 Paths to Atheism:

1.  The Cliches

I hate that these thoughts are seen as cliche. I’m talking about questions like “Where did we all come from” and then the requisite follow up of “Well then, where did God come from?” You know why I hate it? Because those are very fair questions to ask. The first one being the question that drives many people into philosophical and religious thought.

But the answer you’ll get from the religious is, “God always was.” That’s really just a veiled way out of the question. It doesn’t address the intellectual core of the question. You’re assuming things that exist must have come from something; you’re told we came from god; so where did god come from? Instead of saying ‘nowhere’ the answer distracts with ‘always was.’ Using that logic you might as well assume we, as humans or a planet or just plain mass, always were. There’s nothing more philosophically or scientifically profound about saying God ‘just is’ than saying we “simply are.” It’s just an escape route. To understand that the answer of God isn’t an answer to the question of ‘Where did we come from?’ at all, makes it a lot easier to question his very existence.

2.  The Rest of the World Really Does Exist – Part 1

I think this is where my doubt truly started. The first argument I remember bringing up time and again when I first found people to talk to honestly about the existence of god was ‘If I had been born on the other side of the planet, I would simply be whatever religion their culture is.” Since there is no more material background for Christianity over Islam or, heck, even Mormonism, my thought was in all likelihood true. All of the big faiths have a book that is full of stories that morally instruct and people that believe it to be true. Nothing distinguishes one religion’s claims as more valid than another on an evidence based level.

This was a big thing to me because like it or not, a lot of religious people do claim that you have to praise the right God to go to heaven. It’s definitely a pretty big theme in the Bible. Heck, the old testament instructs you to kill people of other faiths. (We’ll get to the bible later). To understand that entire cultures and countries of people hold opposing religious beliefs to yours is one thing. To realize that just being born in a certain region is the main precursor to a religious affiliation is another.

3.  The Rest of the World Really Does Exist – Part 2 

This part isn’t going to be as hard hitting as it is ego crushing. I’ve been told, “There’s nothing more narcissistic than believing there is no god.” They get to that conclusion with something to the affect of, “You think you’re the biggest thing in the universe.  You believe in nothing but yourself.” To this, I’d say there’s nothing more narcissistic than saying, “My Dad came to see me today. YAY! God is so great!” Obviously that is simply an example from a subset of a vast array of examples; thanking god for an award, pointing to the sky when you score a touchdown. All of these things suggest that God played a meticulous role in your mundane, or trivial, or even acceptably exciting life, while allowing entire regions of the world to be subjected to war-lords, hunger, AIDS pandemics, oppression or just plain greed. And not just for moments, but for lifetimes and generations. This is the most narcissistic thing I can think of. And accepting those truths makes it pretty hard to believe in a God that interferes with day-to-day life.

4. The Bible: Content

“God clearly expects us to keep slaves. That right there clearly demonstrates that we shouldn’t get our morality from religion.” – Sam Harris 

Need I say more? I really feel like I don’t, but I know how debates go below articles dealing with religion so I better lay it on thick. To put it slightly less simply, there is a long history of religious texts being used to oppress people. Without going on a rampage of quotes I can give you a quick synopsis. If you’re a woman, the bible tells you to do what your man tells you to do and don’t even think about talking at church (Ephesians 5:22-24 and all over Corinthians). These texts were used by countless “religious” folk to suppress women’s rights using the Bible as the word of God. If we’re talking about slavery, then you know that slaves should respect and serve their masters as if they were god on earth no matter how horribly they treat their slaves (Peter, Psalm, Ephesians, Colossians, Titus). But don’t worry, god tells the slave owners to take it easy on them (Ephesians 6:9). These texts were used by the “religious” to argue for slavery in this country using the Bible as the word of God. The exact same could be said for interracial marriage, with the Bible literally invoking the concept of “mud races” numerous times (Acts, Genesis, Leviticus, Jeremiah, Deuteronomy).  I mean, come on.

So, with that, the exact debate being had in the religious sector over homosexuality is almost identical to one that was had over slavery, race relations, and women’s rights just decades ago. Luckily, this will play out like all the others. Once the “religious” people, quoting their religious text, eventually lose, the mainstream accepts that those portions of the Bible were “a product of the times” and/or were “never meant to be taken literally.”

But does that really make the foundation of religion any stronger? Or is that just the unceremonious and intellectually dishonest way to admit that your religion is wrong and instructed people immorally for hundreds of years? Once you recognize that the Bible actually has a fair amount of immoral instruction, and people are just regurgitating answers to excuse it, can you really accept it as the word of God?

5. The Bible: Origins (Alternate title: The Rest of the World Really Did Exist) 

Most of it is just plagiarism from paganism. From the birth of Christ being celebrated in December to the most iconic stories in the Bible, it was all stolen from previous cultures and beliefs of their time. Egyptian theology from 3000 BC has a character Horus (loosely considered a “Sun God”). He was born of a virgin, three wise men followed a star in the east to find him upon his birth, he had 12 disciples, was crucified and resurrected three days later. All of this sounds familiar I trust?

This is but one example from one previous religion. Countless pagan religions had tales along these exact lines. And stories of a “Great Flood.” And stories of dark vs. light/good vs. evil. Once you recognize that the Bible has lifted much of it’s religious lore can you really accept it as the word of God? And once you recognize the Bible is merely a compilation album, what does that say for religion as a whole?

6. Staring at it for a while…

This one can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I’ll use the concept of “heaven” as an example. To put it simply, existing forever in bliss sounds great but what does that even mean? If you assume that you are forever happy in heaven does that mean you even have thoughts? Is something magically making me never have a sad thought? If so, is that even me anymore? Is heaven just a drugged up version of yourself then? If not, what if someone I really enjoyed, went to hell? Would they not let me think about that? Because that would be an eternity of sadness for me. Not bliss. And if “heaven” just lied to me and gave me a carbon copy of that person, what the heck is that? That’s not reasonable.

http://youtu.be/1VbMAwN0u7I

Yes, the basic concept of heaven sounds great and I really do wish something to that affect exists. But deciding to intellectually dissect the parts of religion that are meant to make you feel warm and fuzzy can make it anything but. It makes it seem hollow and meaningless. And once you recognize that many claims religions make are either hollow threats or hollow promises, what’s left to believe in?

*Bonus 7: Evolution/Science

I didn’t include this as an actual subset because I don’t see this as something that has to be at odds with a God. That’s simply the dynamic many religious people draw. And Richard Dawkins. But, of course, it conflicts with both (yup, there’s two) of the origin stories of the Bible. As much as I’ve always loved Genetics, and love Richard Dawkins’ work in demonstrating how “not perfectly made” our organs and animal structures really are, I’ve just never really found this to be a way into Atheism. I’ve experienced a tad, and seen plenty, to understand the kind of mental gymnastics people put themselves through to preserve “faith” and this never seemed direct enough for me to think it would change hearts and minds on its own. Definitely worth noting none the less.

Closing Arguments: Ironically I’m About to get Preachy

Personally, religion’s most disgusting attribute is when it makes people feel shame and guilt for the wrong things. You haven’t been going to church? You’re a bad person. Think homosexuality is ok? You’re a bad person. You have lustful thoughts? You’re a bad person. When the mind is worried about these quaint (or non-) downfalls in their personal morality it makes it easier to lose sight of what’s really important. Just being a nice person — not hurting people. When we label things that are of no consequence as immoral it can not help people make sense of the world. It just confuses and creates internal anguish. And there’s nothing much worse than teaching someone to hate themselves.

So, personally, once I realized all this guilt was completely unnecessary and just in place to help other people hold onto these beliefs, no matter how it affected those different than themselves, it all just seemed so…gross. So gross that calling myself an atheist felt almost like a badge of honor I had created and given to myself. And I believe this is what atheists are referring to if you ever hear one of them say that losing their religion was “freeing.”

With that, I hope this piece didn’t only preach to the choir. Likewise, I hope this piece didn’t only fall on deaf ears. If religion is your thing, I’m not trying to stop you and I’m not going to call you any names. I’m just pointing out that these are the holes in your foundation and it seems the only way religion ever plugs them is by increasing the portions of the Bible that were “a product of it’s time” and/or “were never meant to be taken literal” while ever increasing the acceptance of secularist views with every passing year, generation and Pope.

And that’s what I meant to say to my bossman. May peace be with you.  And also with you, you and you.

 

Chad Becker had to become a free thinking atheist before there was Reddit. That’s right. He also walked uphill both ways to school. He has been pondering, worrying and writing about religion, atheism and just being for about 10 years now and is a news junkie in the great city of Grand Rapids.

Activism Current Events Ethics

On Forgiving the Homophobia from Christianity

These signs were displayed at Motor City Pride 2012, in June.
Apologetics?

Everyone has been glad to see these photos. It seems we are meant to be touched by this meager penance. Their new tolerant god lends flexibility to the charlatans’ bigotry. A flexibility, I must add, that has been employed before; with the geocentric theory, creationism, and nationalism. Each time, the policies logically derived from their sacred text are rescinded by a retreat from that same text.

But forgive them, they ask. Very well, let us consider what reasonable terms we can accept this forgiveness. Most Christians, for most of their history, persecuted people because of a private sexual preference. I am particularly reminded of the case of Alan Turning, who, upon being given a choice between a hormone therapy that would have caused him to grow breasts, and suicide, chose death. But how can we assure this type of thing never happens again? By first understanding why they did this in the first place, and this is because their sacred text, the Bible, very clearly lists Homosexuality as an abominable sin.

I can already hear the objections.

“God is love!”

Irrelevant, the scriptures damn sin as all but unforgivable. Anyone who thinks otherwise should read the story of Korah, or Jesus’ remarks on lukewarm water. (A phrase I particularly resent.)

“That was just the Old Testament!”

What other great moral guideline of the Old Testament was forgotten when Jesus returned? True, some minor laws that the Pharisees had extrapolated were forgotten by Jesus, for example when he allegedly worked on the Sabbath by healing someone. But the definitions of appropriate sexuality were never challenged, and why should we simply assume they have been abandoned because of Jesus’ return? Why keep the Old Testament at all if we can assume such things? If I am wrong, and there is a specific annulment of the laws against homosexuality in the Bible, I am ignorant of it. The reality is, again, proof of the corruption of the system of belief that is Christianity, and we are again incapable of seeing it for what it is. These people’s religious beliefs are immoral. They could not leave other people’s sexual habits alone, because their book plainly told them not to. Now, they abandon the book with all the usual casuistry. They’ve pulled this card before, with evolution, and with heliocentric theory, and with women’s suffrage, and with the abolitionists. But, if we convinced people to abandon the book, rather than just the unfashionable parts, how could they criticize the gay pride movement?

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for gays to be able to get married.”
“Why?”
“It will weaken marriage by weakening the definition of marriage. Without such strict terms for marriage, it loses its poignance.”
“So the sanctity of an individual’s marriage is determined by that marriage’s peers? Further, the simple admission of a possibility of a marriage outside your social group’s definition of a marriage will cause this? If that’s true, the marriage was impossibly fragile to begin with, and therefore doomed.”
“It is objectively not right. People are harmed.”
“Whom?”
“The children.”
“They are empirically not. There are many examples of high-achieving children with gay parents.”
“The people in the marriage are harmed.”
“They are consenting adults, what evidence can you put forth to justify the disregard of their personal choices?”

There isn’t any. I cannot continue this hypothetical debate because it requires an impossible standard of evidence to justify an anti-homosexual standpoint. Yet, apparently, we would prefer to retain this fabricated and ancient conglomeration of myths that is absolutely proven to be capable of justifying the use of slaves, and the interruptions of consenting adults’ personal lives.

So no, I will not forgive you, until you admit not only you were wrong, but show me you understand why you were wrong.

 

Ethics History Religion

Martin Luther King Jr. – Church Critic and Religious Skeptic

The origin of morality is a popular topic among both religious believers and skeptics. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a religious debate where this point has failed to come up. Many religious people, especially Christians, view the existence of a moral code as compelling evidence of their God’s existence, and will often reference the robust moral convictions of famous religious leaders to support that claim.

The most common contemporary example is Martin Luther King Jr., a revered Baptist minister and civil rights leader. King graduated high school at the age of 15 and, after earning two bachelor’s degrees, was awarded a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. During that time he served as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and became an outspoken proponent of the American civil rights movement.  In 1964, King became the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35. King was a Christian leader who undoubtedly possessed a strong moral compass. However, it isn’t at all clear that his moral convictions arose from his religion.

In fact, MLK often boldly condemned the actions of the Christian Church.  As Jeff Nall points out in his profile of King’s religious beliefs, MLK roundly criticized many forms of organized religion, not only for its failure to support racial and economic equality (calling it Christianity’s “everlasting shame”), but also for its explicit support of war and violence.  King noted:

In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. During the last two world wars, national churches even functioned as the ready lackeys of the state, sprinkling holy water upon the battleships and joining the mighty armies in singing, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.

Nall also points out that MLK was a strong supporter of church/state separation. Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that school-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional, King said:

I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision.

But King didn’t limit his criticism to the church; he was also openly skeptical of the very foundations of Christan doctrine. Despite being the son of a Baptist minister, MLK challenged traditional views of Christianity and the literal interpretation of scripture from a very young age.  As Robert James Scofield describes in his profile of Martin Luther King Jr.’s religious doubts:

His entrance into Christianity at the age of six came from neither a genuine religious conviction nor a crisis moment; rather, he saw his sister make the altar call during a local religious revival and quickly followed suit. He claimed that during his baptism he had no idea what was occurring. Perhaps most striking was his denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus during Sunday school at the age of thirteen. From this point he stated […in his Biography], “doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly.”

Those doubts were reinforced as King continued to explore the foundations of Christianity.  In a paper he wrote in 1949, King examined the psychological and historical origins of three foundational concepts of Christianity: The divinity of Jesus, his virgin birth, and his resurrection. While his analysis is worth reading in full, I’ll give away the punchline by telling you that King begins by stating, “these doctrines are historically and philolophically [sic] untenable.” He goes on to strip these stories of their literal meaning, and explore what it was about both the historical Jesus and the sociopolitical environment in which early Christianity was spreading that might have led to the propagation of such obvious inconsistencies and falsehoods as those found in the Bible.

King went on to exhibit other forms of skepticism about mainstream Christian doctrine, and even warned that it may be harmful. In 1950, King wrote a paper titled “The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus,” where he states:

The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems to me quite inadequate. To say that the Christ, whose example of living we are bid to follow, is divine in an ontological sense is actually harmful and detrimental. To invest this Christ with such supernatural qualities makes the rejoinder: “Oh, well, he had a better chance for that kind of life than we can possibly have …” So that the orthodox view of the divinity of Christ is in my mind quite readily denied. The significance of the divinity of Christ lies in the fact that his achievement is prophetic and promissory for every other true son of man who is willing to submit his will to the will and spirit of God. Christ was to be only the prototype of one among many brothers.

The appearance of such a person, more divine and more human than any other, andstanding [sic] and standing in closest unity at once with God and man, is the most significant and hopeful event in human history. This divine quality or this unity with God was not something thrust upon Jesus from above, but it was a definite achievement through the process of moral struggle and self-abnegation. [Emphasis mine.]

In other words, King’s saw Christ’s “divinity” to have arisen through his good works, not because of his particular relationship to a deity. In this sense, it seems MLK is using an external definition of morality to evaluate Christ’s behaviors.

This is a reflection of what’s known as “The Euthyphro Dilemma,” which asks if something is good simply because it is God’s will, or if God wills something because it is good. Briefly, if the first statement is true, then morality is arbitrary, and anything a god does cannot, by definition, be immoral. Moral behavior therefore becomes a synonym for “God’s actions.”  However, if the second is true, then morality is independent of any gods, and therefore can’t be used as evidence of said gods.

As a secular humanist and an atheist, I believe that the foundations of morality are rooted in a concern for human welfare and are completely independent of religious belief. Martin Luther King Jr.’s opinions and writings suggest that he would agree with me.

 

Opinion Religion Science

Atheism, Mental Illness, and Coping

I want to preface this piece a little bit. I originally wrote it several months ago, when the storm of blogging about mental illness was just getting started among the popular atheist community bloggers, as an argument for why Skepticism should pick up mental illness as a talking point. We’ve seen Jen McCreight and Greta Christina come out and discuss mental illness, JT Eberhard give a tearjerker talk at Skepticon IV, and many others come out to our community (including your own Ellen Lundgren). So while I may have missed the boat a little bit, it is never too late to discuss something which afflicts a very significant portion of the population, claiming many of those lives as well.

I don’t suffer from mental illness, but I’ve become intimately acquainted with it in many folks whom I love and care for, and they deserve my help and support. So, color me an advocate.


Time and time again, when dealing with socially defined taboos – and the groups of people directly affected by them – we see that closets with closed doors leave the isolated in the dark. And in combating this, we’ve seen various movements towards yanking these closet doors wide open within the skeptic & atheist, LGBTQ, and mental health communities. As is often discussed (here by Greta Christina), the relationships between and, albeit partial, intertwinement of the LGBTQ and atheist movements have offered both groups new and effective coping mechanisms. Atheists have learned how to come out of their closets and into the streets in droves, and the LGBTQ community has been offered more prominent humanistic perspectives and secular reasoning to add to their, and everyone’s, arsenal for why people with non-heteronormative sexualities deserve to be treated as humans. Sufferers of mental illness deserve this same support network, and it’s time for secularism to help blow the doors off the closet of neurochemical imbalances.

Psychological studies have shown that, in later life, depression and psychological decline can be abated by the presence of religious influence1. In their review, “Religion and depression in later life,” Braam et al. found that late-life religiousness mostly negatively correlates with depressive symptoms, and the association is more pronounced in elderly Americans in poor health. Further, they outline four dimensions of religiousness which may affect psychological states, to varying degrees: cognitive – beliefs and convictions, affective – spirituality and religious trust, behavioural – church attendance and private practices, and motivational – personal importance. It is clear that cognitive and affective religiousness can directly influence psychological states related to depressive moods, and the social support networks present in religious communities are exactly why so many skeptical people within churches fear the dive away. And once depressed, it’s possible for affected individuals to positively influence remission through religious salience.1

So how does secularism even begin to touch that? It’s often argued that even if beliefs and hopes are false, they should be left alone if people find personal comfort in them; PZ Myers will be one of the first to say that false hopes are socially damaging and should be avoided (he noted this in a panel discussion at the University of Minnesota in 2011), but how can atheism work to replace the documented positive effects of religiousness in certain mental health patients? We start by talking about the origins of mental illness, delusions, and neurodegeneration in reality-based, scientific terms.

The mind/body duality, as well as allusions to divine intervention, promoted by various religions and philosophies over the centuries are intrinsically damaging to the acceptance and treatment of mental illness. Colloquially known as the “it’s all in your head” falsehood, the concept of mental illness as being separated or excluded from obvious physical illness is cemented by the very idea of separation between the psyche and the body. Depression, social anxiety, and the hosts of other neural misfires from which many of us suffer, are rooted in neurobiology and neurophysiology – but so are the emergent properties of the “mind”, e.g. consciousness and self-awareness. So, the sooner the secular movement stabs at this duality misconception within the context of recognizing mental illnesses as physical diseases, the sooner taboos are killed and closets are emptied.

For the social-network savvy younger generations, taking the plunge and admitting to suffering from mental health issues, without the motivational benefits of religiousness, is less difficult than for those of greater generations. And to address the issues of mental health, false hopes, and atheism at more advanced ages could prove exceedingly hairy due to familial and social implications. The existence of religious community and support networks justifies addressing these issues at such a pivotal time in the human condition, and yeah, we atheists have those too. So with such a plethora of safety nets at our backs, why not start addressing mental illness from a secular perspective – at any age? Especially considering that “atheistic belief-based coping can be as effective as religious belief-based coping in helping individuals adapt to various issues that accompany ageing and old age”.2 In their findings from a case study pairing 11 subjects with strong atheistic beliefs with 8 strongly religious subjects, Wilkinson and Coleman write the following:

“Considering Dawkins’s four traditional functions of religious belief [explanation, guidance, consolation, and inspiration], [-], this study provides some evidence that a strong atheistic belief system fulfils [sic] the same role in people’s lives as a strong religious belief system in terms of the explanations, moral guidance, consolation and inspiration that beliefs bring. While science has arguably long surpassed any religion’s explanation of life and the universe, and while man’s moral nature is beginning to be examined in terms of evolutionary psychology, Dawkins admits that religion may trump an atheist’s worldview when it comes to issues of consolation (Dawkins 2006). He no more than suggests that an atheistic outlook on life is just as inspiring as a religious one, if not more so (Dawkins 1998, 2006). Virtually all the interviewed atheists at some point mentioned how inspiring they find science and that their understanding of one’s infinitesimally small position in material reality helped them transcend their own problems.”

If religion truly trumps atheism in the consolation and comfort of mental illness patients, it is only through external consolation and the deportation of control and personal influence. In accepting our depressions, our anxieties, and our personality disorders as physical ailments of the brain, we’re rejecting the religiously-enforced idea that there is something metaphysical about our minds – that there is an impassible gap between our bodies and the roots of mental illness. In discussing mental illness and coping mechanisms within the secular movement, we’re creating a safe space for affected individuals outside of organized religions. And in offering up our communities and compassion to closeted sufferers of mental illness, atheists can protect and advocate for yet another bloc of misinterpreted, misunderstood, and mislabeled people.

Sources

  1. Braam, A. W., Beekman, A. T. F., and van Tilburg, W. Religion and depression in later life. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. Volume 12(4), July 1999, pp. 471-475.
  2. Wilkinson, P. J., and Coleman, P. G. Strong beliefs and coping in old age: a case-based comparison of atheism and religious faith. Ageing & Society, Cambridge University Press. Volume 30, 2010, pp. 337-361.
Creative General Opinion

And now, if you will, a Metaphor….

Imagine a massive ship filled with many sailors…

At some time, a rumor began spreading amongst all the people that the boat was heading towards an island that was unbelievably amazing; an island where all the normal laws of reality were suspended and ultimate, endless bliss would enrapture them forever. Many of the sailors took so much joy from this thought that they began ignoring their duties on the ship, doing little more than staring out on the horizon and waiting for the island to appear. Many others did indeed continue their day-to-day tasks on the ship, helping to keep it clean and such, but they constantly talked about the island. It was their obsession, their passion, and their pride. Groups and sub-groups formed around different ideas of what the island would be like. Some thought it would be tropical, others temperate, and still others thought it would have every climate imaginable for all people to enjoy. Arguments sprang up over what sorts of foods would be present on the island!

At various times, different sailors would hold out their spyglasses and shout aloud “I see it! I see the island there!” and many would swell with enthusiasm…that is, until it was revealed that the crier had seen wrong (or, on occasion, even outright lied). Despite all these false alarms and misplaced swells of hope, the vast majority of the sailors kept believing, to the point of certainty, that the island was just over the next wave.

Eventually, almost all of the sailors took to ignoring the present duties of ship-board life and chose to stare out on the horizon with their own spyglasses, each on certain that they could see the island in the distance (despite some of them looking in utterly opposite directions). Indeed, there were many heated arguments, but one thing every one of them could agree on was this: regardless of exactly where it was or what it was like, that perfect island was definitely out there, somewhere. It just had to be.

One day, one of the sailors climbed up to the top of the mast and found two other sailors there, arguing.

“I think the island will be temperate!” said the first. “It will be temperate, I tell you!”

“Ah, but you’re mistaken, friend. It will be tropical!” said the second. “I guarantee you, for I can see it!” he continued, holding his spyglass aloft.

“Fool!” shouted the first. “I can see it, and it is, in fact, quite temperate!”

At that point, the third sailor (who had just climbed up) yanked the spyglasses from both others and told them this:

“Actually, friends, you’re both mistaken. If you’ll just look right here,” he said, gesturing to the ends of their spyglasses, “you’ll see that you each just drew what you wanted the island to be like on the glass. You were never actually seeing the island; you just painted what you wanted to see and thus saw it in your own imagination. Now if you’ll just look without these faulty spyglasses, you’ll quickly see that there is no island; in fact, there never was an island. However, what we do have is an amazing ship with everything you could ever really want already on it. There are lots of other people onboard, too. You can get to know them, make friends, find lovers, and have wonderful conversations. You can learn, eat, relax, work, and overall have a merry life aboard this ship if you’ll only just stop obsessing over this island you came up with.”

“But the island is supposed to be perfect!” cried the first sailor.

“Indeed! Perfect!” shouted the second, both of them clearly distraught at this news.

“Ah, but that is exactly why it doesn’t exist, friends,” said the third sailor. He reached out and put his hands on their shoulders: “Nothing perfect is out there. I’ll admit it, this ship is sometimes leaky and some of the other people aboard aren’t too terribly pleasant. But I think you’ll find that once you stop daydreaming about perfection and start happily working with what you do have, you’ll find yourselves much happier.”

Behold, our ship

Now, guess which sailor was the Atheist…

Current Events Religion Science

Don’t take freedom of speech for granted – Blasphemy Rights Day

Today is International Blasphemy Rights day, as designated by the Center for Inquiry (see Astrid’s previous post for some of the history behind it). It used to be called Blasphemy Day; the word “Rights” was inserted to more accurately represent the purpose behind it.

It’s not about infidels and apostates having a day to antagonize people who still hold religious beliefs. It’s not about members of a mainstream religion ritualistically taunting and harassing people of a minority faith. It’s not about goading religious extremists into a murderous rage.

It’s about people who value freedom of speech raising awareness of how easily that freedom can be trampled upon. It’s about recognizing that as another set of claims in the marketplace of ideas, religion should not be immune from the same scrutiny, criticism, and satire that we freely apply to other forms of speech. It’s about believing that offending someone’s religious sensibilities is not a crime.

Chances are that right now as you read this, you are committing blasphemy against someone’s religion. It might be the clothes or jewelry you’re wearing. It might be a symbol or phrase you have tattooed on your skin. It might be the person you are in a relationship with or are attracted to. It might be the “unclean” food digesting in your stomach right now.

Forbidden food AND irreverence to a revered tale! It's sacrilicious!

It might be the lighthearted joke you made about a traditional practice. It might be the way you celebrate a certain holiday. It might be the particular translation of your religion’s holy book that you read. It might be a recent (or centuries old) scientific discovery that you now know as fact.

It might be the fact that you find a particular supernatural claim so absurd that you snicker at the very idea of it.

His Merriness will not be mocked!

The bottom line is that someone somewhere believes that their god hates what you’re doing right now, and that person would be deeply offended to know that you’re doing it so brazenly. In some parts of the world, that makes you a criminal who deserves fines, imprisonment, torture, or the death penalty.

If you live in a country where treating religion with anything short of veneration is legal, consider yourself lucky. Don’t take freedom of speech for granted.

Opinion Religion

Common arguments, refuted

Hello all,

This is the first in a series of posts deconstructing and refuting some common arguments in favor of theism, religion, faith, etc. This article will feature the so-called “TAG,” or Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God. This is the argument employed by Prussian philosopher & anthropologist Immanuel Kant in his 1763 book, Der einzig mögliche Beweisgrund zu einer Demonstration des Daseins Gottes (The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of God’s Existence). Put simply, it goes like this:

(1) If reason exists then God exists.
(2) Reason exists.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

It is sometimes called the presuppositionalist argument as well. Additionally, you can replace “reason” with “knowledge,” “objective morality,” “logic,” “the universe,” or pretty much anything else you want.

There are several common criticisms against this one. The first is that it doesn’t demonstrate any specific god or gods. You could just as easily replace “God” with any other deity and “prove” that one is real, instead. It should be noted that parsimony requires the postulation of one god rather than more than one god, unless you have evidence to the contrary (and really, if we had evidence at all, we wouldn’t need to play these logic games to try to prove a god in the first place). It’s simply more likely that there’s only one god for which there is no evidence that they there are multiple gods for which there are no evidence, in the same way that (even though both are false), Judaism is more likely to be true than Christianity, since Judaism requires that you believe the Old Testament, whereas Christianity requires that you believe both the Old and New Testaments. The more layers of unsubstantiated crap you pile on, the less likely something is to be true.

Another criticism is the assertion that reason exists. If we’re going to use logic, we kind-of have to agree that reason exists. When theists try to use “objective morality” or “knowledge” in place of “reason,” it gets a little easier to refute. There’s no good evidence that objective morality exists, and if you’re skilled at arguing as a global skeptic, demonstrating that the existence knowledge is unprovable isn’t too difficult – this just gets down to an epistemological discussion, which is beyond the scope of this article.

(1) is more or less a bare assertion fallacy. There’s no good evidential or logical reason to justify the statement that if reason/morality/logic/the universe/whatever exists, then [a] god exists. Someone making this argument would have to explain why the existence of reason is dependent on the existent of god. The two aren’t logically linked and we have no reason to believe they are, any more than we have reason to believe, for example, that if people with the ability to type exist, computer exist. There are other explanations for how people with the ability to type came into existence – for example, the existence of typewriters would explain this, as well.

I tend not to argue too much about (2) unless someone claims that objective morality exists. Then I would ask, what’s your evidence for this? What is objective morality? How do you know that? It seems to be another bare assertion.

(3) is, again, a non sequitur relating to (1). There is no logical link between the existence of reason etc and the existence of (any) god. Reason could be explained just as well (more parsimoniously, in fact) by arguing that it evolved as an emergent property of sufficiently complex brains, the same as consciousness. You can also argue this with morality, using the evolution of cooperation & game theory (for more info about this, I highly recommend Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation and Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue).

Ultimately, this argument boils down to a quite simple refutation: It’s an “ipse-dixitism” fallacy that “If (x) exists, God must exist.” That’s just an a priori, unsubstantiated assertion. You could just as easily assert that “If (x) exists, Santa Claus exists.” The two aren’t causally or logically linked. Since (1) contains a fallacy, the argument is invalid, and cannot serve as a sound proof of the existence of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God (or any other god or gods).

Until next time,

Dave

Activism Current Events Ethics History News Religion

9/11 Changed the Face of Atheism

It has become almost cliché to say that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were the Pearl Harbor or Kennedy assassination of our generation.  Ten years later, nearly all of us remember what we were doing the moment we heard the news.  The day is seared into our collective memory not simply due to the emotional impact of the moment, but because of the startling realization that our lives would never again be the same.

The events of that day profoundly affected our way of life. Not just foreign policy or airline safety standards, but also our sense of security and our relationship to fellow human beings. For many people, it even changed their relationship with their god and religion.

The American Humanist Association’s most recent newsletter features one woman’s story of how 9/11 influenced her journey from Catholicism to Atheism. Diqui LaPenta, a biology professor in northern California, tells of losing her boyfriend, Rich Guadagno, on Flight 93, the flight that crashed in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.

…My parents arrived two days later, having driven all the way from San Antonio, Texas, and we flew to New Jersey for a memorial service for Rich. Some very religious relatives planned to meet us in New Jersey. I asked my parents to ensure that those relatives refrain from religious platitudes. I didn’t want to hear that Rich was in a better place or with God or that it was all part of some plan that God had for us. From the moment I heard that Rich and thousands of others had been killed, I knew that the all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God of childhood stories absolutely could not exist. Rich was not in a better place. There was no place he would rather be than with his dog Raven, me, his family, and his friends. I would never see Rich again, as there is no afterlife. Pretending that I would see him again would make it impossible to heal.

Before 9/11, I’d never considered myself an atheist. After that day I was, and I let people know it. When asked what church I attend, I reply that I don’t. If prompted to explain why, I say that I’m an atheist. Some people say, “But you have to believe in something!” I do. I believe in the power of rational thought and critical thinking. I believe that we should live thoughtful, peaceful, moral lives because it’s the right thing to do and not because we’re afraid of punishment or hopeful for a reward beyond the grave. We have this one life, and we should make the best of it for the short time we are here.

Diqui isn’t the only one that felt compelled to be more forthright about her atheism after 9/11. As the CNN Belief Blog points out, the religious nature of the attacks provided the impetus for many atheists to come out of the closet and openly criticize previously unassailable religious beliefs.

Atheists were driven to become more vocal because of the 9/11 attacks and America’s reaction, says David Silverman, president of American Atheists. He says many atheists were disgusted when President George W. Bush and leaders in the religious right reacted to the attack by invoking “God is on our side” rhetoric while launching a “war on terror.”

They adopted one form of religious extremism while condemning another, he says.

“It really showed atheists why religion should not be in power. Religion is dangerous, even our own religion,” Silverman says.

Atheists are still the most disparaged group in America, but there’s less stigma attached to being one, he says.

“The more noise that we make, the easier it us to accept us,” Silverman says. “Most people know atheists now. They knew them before, but didn’t know they were atheists.”

In fact, atheists have gained so much public acceptance that David Silverman gave a public address this morning on the main steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, in an event hosted by the PA Nonbelievers.

While some atheists began speaking out, others began writing. As Newsweek reports, Sam Harris began writing his bestselling The End of Faith on September 12th, 2001 – directly in response to the attacks.  Harris’s recent blog post on the 10 year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks succinctly summarizes his perspective on the distance we have left to travel:

Ten years have now passed since many of us first felt the jolt of history—when the second plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We knew from that moment that things can go terribly wrong in our world—not because life is unfair, or moral progress impossible, but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions of our ignorant ancestors. The worst of these ideas continue to thrive—and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children.

On the other hand, while some atheists began speaking out in public and openly critiquing religious ideas, others saw the attacks as a call for greater unity and love.  Chris Stedman, a Fellow for the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, will be honoring those lost by spending today packaging 9,110 meals to be distributed to hungry children in Massachusetts.  As he stated recently in Washingtion Post’s On Faith:

9/11 will live on forever in our nation’s memory. We suffered an incomprehensible loss at the hands of extremists who believed that religious diversity must end in violence. But as people of diverse religious and secular identities, we can counter them with our unity. By building bridges of understanding, we can act on our shared values and learn-from and with one another-how to be our best selves.

No matter the reaction, the attacks on September 11th caused the public face of atheism to drastically change.  The 10 years since that day has seen many changes in way the world community approaches religion, but no one can say that religious beliefs are as protected from criticism as they were a decade ago.

Many non-believers have very strong opinions about the best way to prevent similar attacks in the future. Despite the ongoing debates, it seems clear to me that the courage to work with religious community groups in areas where our interests overlap, paired with the freedom to directly and openly criticize bad ideas wherever they occur in the public sphere, will be the tools that we must use to build a safer, healthier, and happier future.